From problem solving to dilemma management — measure and moderation in communications

Freedom and justice, profitability and sustainability, humans and machines — the economic and societal transformation processes of our era have been shaped by fundamental opposites that cannot be fully dissolved. It is also thus linked to a change in our understanding of management as a creative task: Whilst the 20th century school of management was still shaped by a belief in systematic problem solving using all the necessary resources, the tedious work involved in dilemma management has proved to be the standard method in the 21st century — also in communications. Jim Carroll, an institution in the British communication scene, hits the nail on the head when he says, “Not all the questions have right and wrong answers. Dilemmas are issues that cannot be solved — they can only be treated and carefully calibrated.”

If public debate cannot (only) be concerned with right and wrong and thereby the verbal battle involving facts and arguments alone does not in the main lead to a value-adding outcome, then aspects relating to the attitude and appearance of communication gain in importance. In doing so, a successful package can never cover up deficits within the thought process. As for public speaking events, one erroneously pointed here to a 60s study conducted by the US psychologist Albert Mehrabian. It concluded that only seven percent of an oration’s impact was down to the content whilst the tone and bearing of the speaker made up for 38 and 55 percent respectively. In 2006, the Allensbach Institute re-examined the subject and discovered that the oration’s content was the decisive factor.

To manage dilemma constellations communicatively, a trio of success factors that can be united under the term communication aesthetics — balance, symmetry, and elegance — has to be taken into consideration. It is not a case of beautifying ornamentation, brilliant façade design, or the — sometimes occasionally recognizable in the general hype surrounding newsroom optics — display of communicative competency in space.

Wilhelm Röpke (1899–1966), one of the spiritual fathers of the social market economy, spoke out in favour of an economic humanism that tries to harmoniously balance the interests of the market players with the social interests of society. (“Mass und Mitte”, 1950). This balancing idea can also lead the process to create communicative strategies when it involves the positioning of, for instance, a company within the societal debating sphere. Put simply: In the era of dilemma management, one has to also withstand criticism and incorporate its effect per se into one’s own planning.

If the constellations become confusing and the situation is simultaneously in a constant state of flux, reducing complexity becomes a vital communication management task. Symmetry hereby plays an important role in many ways as a benchmark: As a thought pattern and as activity orientation. A clear thought (in a turbulent situation) is obvious for all to see on paper (or in an e-mail or PowerPoint respectively) and cuts dilemma constellations (so to speak with a communication golden cut) symmetrically in dilemma dimensions — instead of leading people to believing that there are options for solutions where there are none. At the same time clever communication always acts in a symmetrical relationship with the actual situation: Alarmism, emotional exuberance, wishful thinking, or bunker mentality are foreign to it.

As for elegance, the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery (1871–1945) has come up with the right words: “Elegantia — That means transferring freedom and economy into the visible.” For communicators, it is all about the skinniness of the thought process, the accuracy of the statement without resorting to many words. Whereby the skill of not only using words to say what one has to say is something Hans Castorp called “flawless conventionalisms” in Thomas Mann’s book, The Magic Mountain.

Admittedly, it is exhausting meeting the demands of dilemmas with aesthetic communication — and sometimes also painful. However, the alternative would be fatal. The communications specialist Liane Rothenburger has pointed out that “terrorists are also communications experts.” Their answer to dilemmas is “violence.”

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